I first saw Darkwatch at an electronics convention in New York City and immediately fell in love.
After completing the single-player campaign in Halo 2, I shifted gears to Darkwatch. Where Halo is basically every military science fiction trope (Starship Troopers, Aliens, Predator, Space: Above and Beyond, and Battlestar Galactica to name a few), Darkwatch sets out to create its own genre. And that genre is Wild West Horror.
Darkwatch draws on two sources for inspiration: Deadlands, the pen-and-paper role-playing game, and Pale Rider, a Clint Eastwood Western. Deadlands first combined Victorian gothic horror with Wild West sensibilities, creating a wacky combination of gore and grit. Pale Rider established the notion of a supernatural hero in a Wild West setting. The Darkwatch is a secret organization similar to the one depicted in Van Helsing with access to advanced technology dedicated to keeping supernatural villains under control.
Darkwatch follows the twisted life and death of Jericho Cross, a train robber who decides to rob the wrong train. He unwittingly unleashes Lazarus, an ancient vampire, and thus brings about hell on Earth. For reasons we don't ever fully understand, Lazarus turns Jericho into a vampire. And thus, Jericho has all the cool traits of a vampire, from drinking blood to "blood vision" that allows him to pick out living auras.
What ensues is a visceral shoot-em-up. You can shoot enemies heads off their bodies with a six-gun (called a Redeemer), blow off their limbs with shotguns, and even mow them down with Gatling guns. You can also use a scope rifle similar to the one used in Halo. Did I mention the "rail rocket" AKA bazooka? The game even has a Coyote, similar to the Warthog from Halo. Unfortunately, I didn't read the instructions closely enough; there's a "chieftain" setting on the controller to make Darkwatch's controls match up with Halo's. Which would have helped, as my subsequent Halo games have suffered from playing Darkwatch so much!
Need more parallels to Halo? Instead of the artificial intelligence known as Cortana we have Cassidy Sharp whispering ghostly advice. Jericho has a "blood shield" just like the energy shield in Halo that slowly replenishes. And instead of fragmentation grenades, Jericho throws dynamite…with predictable results. There are even dual pistols that fire in a glorious cacophony at close-range enemies. You can also elbow critters with your ranged weapons, although they're considerably more deadly since in Darkwatch every gun has a blade on the handle. Just 'cause it looks cool.
Darkwatch is all about shooting things up. Bottles explode. Bad guys snipe at you from everywhere. And you can fan your pistol, firing at ridiculous speeds. You run and jump across cactus-studded canyons, burning towns, dripping caverns, moving trains, and on horseback. Even the music is reminiscent of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. In short, Darkwatch is most definitely a homage, if a twisted homage, to the Wild West genre it riffs on.
Being a veteran Halo player, I decided to play Darkwatch on the harder setting (Shootist) and I'm glad I did. The game goes by quickly. In addition, the bad guys are repetitive; it suffers from the Diablo-esque tactic of reusing the same enemy model by tweaking it slightly: they're not just evil skeletons, they're SHIMMERY evil skeletons, with twice the EVILNESS! Still, that doesn't keep the aforementioned Reapers from being alternately scary and hilarious. Blowing Reapers' heads off causes them to stumble around in confusion looking for their heads; throwing dynamite causes Reapers to cover their heads and running screaming. And since Reapers lack a lower jaw, they're pretty freaky critters.
Then there are the screaming Banshees that are fond of taunting you. "Run!" they whisper as you run away, or "Dynamite!" when you throw dynamite or my most favorite quote of all, "MY ARM!" after blowing off one of their arms.
In theory, there's a bit of a role-playing element as Jericho whether he wants to reject his vampire/criminal heritage or embrace it. Poor souls, sometimes dead and sometimes living, give Jericho an opportunity to prove his moral character. These choices provide access to good or evil powers, neither of which have a very significant impact on the game.
The single-player storyline is barely coherent and surprisingly adult. There's a video titled Prom Night that will undoubtedly get a lot of replay by male players (my wife thought it was ridiculous). The ending is very abrupt, but I've gotten used to that with games these days.
The multiplayer is excellent; the blood vision power becomes much more important when picking out an intelligent enemy from a distance. The ability to jump really far changes game play, even more than it does in Halo. The multiplayer games can be played with vampire powers turned off, turning it into a traditional Wild West shootout.
Darkwatch doesn't break any new ground as a first-person shooter, but it definitely adds style and panache to a genre that's been shot to death. Playing on hard, I felt I got my money's worth.